Field Tips

Here we discuss the limitations of focusing solely on habitat photography. We explore how perch and blind photography brings an element of "control" to your photography experience and significantly enhances your ability to create outstanding compositions. Controlling your photography experience is an important first step toward advancing bird and wildlife photography to what many consider to be an art form and a "must stop" in your evolution as a photographer (see our Backyard Birds synopsis for a discussion on the important concepts and tricks of the trade that will help you get underway). Alternatively, go to the source and buy Alan Murphy's new ebook "The Photographer's Guide To Attracting Birds." It's absolutely the best source material on how to successfully control your photography experience and will certainly go a long way to elevating the quality of your image output.

In general, the best time to view birds and wildlife is early morning and late afternoon as this is when they are most active. Coincidentally, if the elements are with you, this usually produces the best natural lighting conditions.

Approach is a matter of common sense. It is pointless to rush toward a subject. More often than not, this will simply produce a stress response and you will be left looking at thin air. It is far more productive to allow the subject to become accustomed to your presence and use the time to assess light, background, habitat and determine how to position accordingly.

As most birds and wildlife won't tolerate your presence for long, we recommend that you go to where they congregate as it creates many more opportunities than simply wandering around and hoping that something pops out. Often the best locations are parks, piers, refuge visitor centers or any public venue where birds and wildlife are accustomed to human activity. Here, subjects are often quite compliant. If a nature walk is scheduled, it may be prudent to join in and ask the guide what resident wildlife is in the area and where they hang out. This often produces locations where photography can be quite productive. Rural driving can also yield great results, especially farm fence posts (we can never understand why an image of a bird, especially a raptor on a rural fence post, is considered poor from a composition perspective as this is precisely where they spend a good portion of their lives either roosting or watching for prey). Consider using your vehicle as a natural blind, resting your camera apparatus on a bean bag using the window or ledge for traction. This method is highly productive as getting out is definitely a recipe for disaster! If you camp while traveling, consider bringing a portable bird feeder or water cistern. You'll be surprised how productive this can be after a few days, especially if you use seed that is a natural attraction (wheat, black oils or a bag of "chicken scratch" seem to work best). If you're new to an area, an obvious tactic is to simply follow birding or photography websites looking for local hot spots. We always "Google" an area prior to visiting in the hopes that a blog exists that provides insights into bird and wildlife locations. Our best advice is to find local locations where you can experiment and practise as this will make your life a lot easier in the field where decisions must invariably be made in a hurry. As time passes, we guaranty that the more manual camera techniques will become second nature and that the fear of "missing-the-perfect-shot" or "dial-fumbling" will decline significantly. Really you say! Well with the exception of the ever comatose flower, the moment is pristine and no subject simply sits forever in that perfect pose awaiting your creative pleasure. Remember, digital is not film and the rules need to be subtlely adjusted. Perhaps the most difficult problem to overcome is simply knowing when to "pull the trigger". It's best to keep in mind that digital is cheap, the subject usually doesn't stay put and poor shots can be readily discarded. Although Joe McDonald's "The New Complete Guide To Wildlife Photography" is oriented toward film, it is still a great reference text for advice on stalking and composition techniques.

You will soon discover that a steady diet of habitat photography can be tough sledding even at the best of times. Finding compliant wildlife, waiting for good light, positioning for background and selecting appropriate camera settings are daunting and time consuming tasks. In other words, "working with what you are given" has its challenges. Finding productive habitat is definitely a trial and error process. Once there, you'll need to spend time concentrating on light, wildlife behavior and how to best position yourself without unduly stressing the subject. This is easy to say but immensely difficult to do as the variables that must be dealt with can be quite trying. Our advice is to enter each field situation with a relatively well defined objective - for example, flight shots - then work with what you're given. Any extraneous excitement is a bonus. As such, we highly recommend you try other photography venues as a means to augment your habitat experiences (see our Natural Landscapes synopsis for a discussion on the important concepts and tricks of the trade that will help to get you underway).

For the most part, luck is the predominant factor to producing a truly great photograph "in habitat" at the amateur level. However, your chances will definitely improve through a little judicious study of wildlife behavior. Spectacular photos are for the most part set up or at the very least well planned out and usually take some time to execute. Good wildlife photographers simply know where to go, at what time and have a specific mission in mind. If you want to attain this level, we would argue that you must become proficient at predicting wildlife behavior and reduce your efforts to targeting specific species in locations where they are abundant and readily accessible. A simple example of this would be capturing an image of a duck "wing flap." This is largely a predictable behavior as ducks will "bob" their heads and dip into the water as they are bathing. When finished, they will inevitably flap their wings to remove excess water. All you have to do is wait for them to begin this process and position accordingly.

We would argue that magazine shots aren't exactly easy to come by if you plan to concentrate solely on natural habitat as a venue. Today, it is becoming patently obvious that digital technology coupled with Web ubiquity has created a flood of new market entrants that possess an almost frenetic desire to produce marketable photographs immediately. We can assure you that the margins resulting from this activity make mighty thin gruel! This site has a somewhat different focus. Although we definitely try to compose and exhibit good photographs, we're dedicated to producing an overall appreciation of what is available at targeted locations during specific times of the year. The purpose is to give beginners a glimpse of the major species available and how productive certain locations are seasonally. Although we copyright our images, each is available for use at no charge provided a proper attribution credit is given to the photographer. If you are not seeking remuneration, this is definitely a great way to get your work published. It's also immensely satisfying to see your work in print or other media, where the recognition by far outweighs the time and costs you will incur by setting up a storefront.

As you progress, you will encounter the concept of introducing an element of "control" into your bird and wildlife photography experience. The techniques used here are designed to elevate output to an art form. Although this is an interesting and exciting genre, in our opinion it requires considerable experience, let alone equipment, to create truly interesting and satisfying results. Having said this, we find integrating "controlled" photographic experiences into our largely habitat venue to be immensely satisfying and productive. If you are looking for a good example of this genre, we would suggest that Alan Murphy is a great "set piece" photographer who consistently produces excellent artistic results.

Blind photography is great fun and can be measurably more productive than simply making a cold call to a site and working through the myriad of variables that must be addressed in order to ferret out and position for a subject. Although our experience to date is limited, we offer the following to hopefully make your first perch experience a happy one. For birds, we would argue that the objective is to obviously entice a subject to perch in a setting where foliage is artificially introduced and background controlled in such a way as to assist in positioning the subject as the prime focal point of the photograph. The word control is used to signify that light, color, size of perch and backdrop are within the complete purview of the photographer. Creating an avian photography set piece typically requires natural props (such as logs, grass, small branches or flowers), bait (such as water drips or seeds) and, in some cases, recorded bird calls using speakers. This is obviously best done at a location that is known to harbor the target species and can be as simple as your back yard. It's a contrived but highly satisfactory method of generating truly artistic results as the subject is actually in the wild and elements such as light, background blur and habitat can be controlled. The professionals discovered this eons ago. It takes patience and a definite knowledge of where to concentrate your effort. We like to construct our sets the night before a session since it generally takes a fair amount of time to create an environment that produces a good result. We usually take a number of test images to ensure the colors, perch and position we have chosen will produce the effect we are looking for. This also provides an opportunity to position and test any external flash that we may be using. Some sets need to be "seeded" days prior to a shoot to condition the birds to entering a new environment. This is particularly true if you are targeting Woodpeckers. You may find a small "doggy" blind useful if permanent structures are not available.

The first consideration is to find a perch that is commensurate with the size of the bird being photographed. We generally like to keep the combined bird and perch size to be no greater than two-thirds of the image. We like to use surrounding natural material but do carry a selection of small logs and branches with us that have colorful showings of moss, dried berries or lichen. Beware of branches or logs that are stripped of bark as they will more than likely reflect a harsh light. Depending on location, we generally like to position from one to five perches that can accommodate an easy camera pan from the blind position chosen. Here you must be cognizant of how the bird is likely to alight and ensure you are positioned to take maximum advantage of behavior changes as they occur. This is a prime consideration. We have found that small birds will stay only momentarily for food but linger if water is their primary goal. Larger birds will stay if the bait is fixed with wire or similar material. Some small birds move extremely rapidly through a set, pausing briefly in classic poses that are difficult to capture unless you are accustomed to predicting their behavior. The bait should be carefully concealed so as not to become a prime focus of the photograph. Although peanut butter is a great attraction, we recommend you don't use it as birds tend to coat their beaks while eating and leave you with some rather challenging cloning tasks. Although only some birds will be attracted to bait such as seed, all birds are drawn to water to drink and bathe. As such, constructing a small cistern with a water drip can be an effective method of capturing harder to get species. A final consideration involves background. This is of paramount importance as all your previous efforts will be for naught if the perch is positioned such that light, complex habitat or shadows produce an unwelcome distraction. The preferred background is homogeneous or evenly mottled and in contrast to the subject. The objective is to create a well defined blur behind the subject by opening up as much as possible without affecting the depth of field required for the subject.

You will need to put a small kit together including pruning shears, saw, glue, twist ties, string, hammer, stapler and small finishing nails. Save the water vials that usually come with cut flowers as they are useful for keeping certain foliage looking fresh. Additionally, it is wise to keep natural perches that you may encounter on the road, such as dried thistles or exotic branches for use in later sets. Having an array of moss and lichen on hand as subtle placement in your set can often produce very striking results.

You can see why it takes time and experience to create a controlled photograph. Although the above hardly covers the gamut of perch photography, it encapsulates our experience to date where we have had the opportunity to practise. You can see some of our earlier results in Galleries 15, 25, 28 and 39. Details regarding both the Central Oregon and Southern Arizona locations are described in our Locations synopsis.